Last edited: February 14, 2005

Fractured State Works To Unite Gay Activist Forces

Virginians For Justice Network 99 Conference Offers Opportunities To Meet And Brainstorm

The Washington Blade, October 1, 1999

By Bill Roundy

Shirley Lesser of Virginians for Justice said, "We have a plan to maintain the momentum. People are doing this work all over the state, and I think it's exciting and invigorating." (Photo By Clint Steib)

RICHMOND, VA - Supporters of Gay civil rights from all over the commonwealth met at the Virginians for Justice Network 99 Conference on Sept. 25, exchanging phone numbers, sharing tips for access to local governments, and strategizing for next years legislative session. This year’s conference was the fifth networking event, although VJ has held some sort of annual meeting since it formed in 1989.

Shirley Lesser, the executive director of Virginians for Justice, the group that organized the conference, said that the conference was "fantastic. We were pleased not only with the number of people who attended, but with the quality and quantity of work we did throughout the day."

The event is designed to bring activists together to share strategies for working at the state and local level in Virginia.

"Its wonderful to go to national events, like the [National Gay and Lesbian Task Force] Creating Change conference, but [they don’t] address the specific issues of working in Virginia," said Lesser.

About 45 people attended the conference, representing all regions of the state in roughly equal numbers. Participants ranged from state Dels. Karen Darner (D-Arlington) and Viola Baskerville (D-Richmond) to parents of Gay children and pink-haired members of the Lesbian Avengers.

Loree Erickson, who attended the conference with two other members of the Richmond chapter of the Lesbian Avengers, said that she had learned a lot about legislative strategies at workshops throughout the day.

"We just wanted to come and have a radical presence," Erickson said. "We wanted to see what was going on and how we could get involved."

Ed Harris, a Gay activist from Roanoke, said that he felt energized by attending.

"We're trying to establish an advocacy group [because] the Gay community in Roanoke is so fragmented," said Harris. By coming to the conference, he said, "I’m meeting people, and I’m being encouraged to keep going."

Harris spoke with Del. Darner about the steps that the Gay community has taken in Northern Virginia, and said that he hopes to achieve the same level of acceptance in Roanoke.

Several attendees spoke about the unique challenges of Virginia's Gay community, which they say is splintered among several small groups across the state. One of the purposes of the conference is to unite forces working for Gay equality in Virginia.

"We're so fractured here [in Virginia]" said Pat Heck, chair of the VJ board, during a workshop called "Can Pride go Statewide?"

While there seemed to be interest in creating a single, statewide pride event, the tentative conclusion in that workshop seemed to be that Gay organizations around the state need to work together more closely before that could happen.

Mitch Rosa, the organizer of the Hampton Roads Pride event, said that a statewide Gay Pride festival would get more attention from the legislature, but that financial and logistical problems would require cooperation from groups throughout the state.

Other workshop topics included issues of racism and sexism within the Gay community, Gay activism on the county and city level, and strategies for passing employment non-discrimination legislation.

"The big positive, for me, was the large roundtable working session on the Crimes Against Nature [sodomy] law," said Lesser.

During that session, the most popular of the conference, attendees debated specific wording of amendments designed to repeal the sodomy law, and debated the merits of trying to reduce the sodomy charge from a felony to a misdemeanor, as a partial step toward full repeal.

One result of the session was a task force set up specifically to address sodomy law reform. Participants agreed that support for sodomy reform cannot come solely from Gay organizations, and that the task force should form coalitions with straight allies such as the ACLU and advocates for the disabled.

One idea raised was an advertising campaign to acquaint heterosexuals with the sodomy law one attendant suggested posters in straight bars that read: "Oral sex is a crime."

"More and more, we need to have straight people realize that we're fighting their battles for them," said another participant.

Several days after the conference, Lesser said that VJ is looking into creating such a media campaign.

Natalie Hunt, a member of the Lesbian Avengers from Richmond, said that she was pleased that the emphasis of the conference was, "What can we do, and what will we do, instead of just talking about the issues."

"We have a plan to maintain the momentum," said Lesser, "People are doing this work all over the state, and I think it's exciting and invigorating."

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